There is a story behind how I ended up watching this film last week.
I had first seen Shikast on TV years ago. I was a pre-teen, and didn’t much care for the film: it was too tragic, too angst-ridden, too lacking in entertainment, as far as I was concerned. For years afterwards, the only thing I remembered about the film was that it starred Nalini Jaywant and Dilip Kumar, and that through most of the film, Nalini Jaywant’s character sported a vivid crescent-shaped scar on her forehead. I had even forgotten the name of the film.
Then, sometime over the past year or so on my blog, mentions of this film began surfacing. I finally discovered what its name was, and blog reader Chris was even kind enough to provide the Youtube link for the film.
And yes, a rewatch—after so many years, after so much more experience of life, after what I hope is the attainment of some level of maturity, I think I can safely say that I understand Shikast a bit better than I did when I was 12 years old. It still remains a sad, intense film that makes me wonder at the motivations of some of the characters (in particular, the lead female character), but I can empathise—to some extent—with it more than I did all those years back.
The story of Shikast is simple. In fact, it left me not with a sense of how the plot moved or what followed what, but rather a feeling of what this film was about. It moves slowly, meanderingly, depending mostly on dialogues, emotions (often suppressed), and silence.
More or less, the story is something like this. It begins with a train steaming into the platform at a village named Kundan Garh. Cut to a bullock cart, moving away from the railway station, plodding past fields and down a dusty road. In the cart is Ram (Dilip Kumar), who’s just come by to the village after 7 years away in the city. His bhabhi (Durga Khote), the wife of Ram’s cousin Madho (KN Singh) has come to receive Ram at the station, and as they travel in the cart, the ease of their conversation reveals the level of comfort between them: more of a son and a mother than anything else.
The truth emerges, in snatches of conversation: 7 years ago, Ram had been deeply in love with Sushma (Nalini Jaywant) whose father was [Romeo and Juliet style, this] at daggers drawn with Ram’s own father. The match was forbidden by both fathers, and Sushma was married off elsewhere. Ram, unable to bear the strain of living on in Kundan Garh, left for the city.
Now, Ram has returned—but only for about 24 hours. The purpose of this brief visit is to finally sell off the land that Ram owns here (he’s part owner of the zamindari in Kundan Garh; Madho is another, and Sushma’s husband the third). That will, as far as Ram is concerned, finally sever the last tie he has to Kundan Garh—he will not be obliged any more to come to this village and see Sushma as someone else’s wife.
Ram has been carrying on a correspondence with Madho, and it is to Madho that he is selling his land. Madho has promised to have all the documents ready for Ram to sign, so that his stay in Kundan Garh is not unduly long.
However, en route to Madho’s home, his bhabhi gives Ram a piece of news that is shocking, and unexpected: Sushma is now a widow, bringing up her son Munna (Master Kapoor) on her own, and looking after the zamindari to which Munna is the heir.
After they’ve reached home and Ram has met Madho, bhabhi makes a request: Ram should go and meet Sushma, express his condolences for the death of her husband. Ram balks at the suggestion; it would be too painful. But bhabhi is insistent. People will gossip if (rather, when) they discover that Ram, returning after so many years to Kundan Garh, did not even have the decency to visit Sushma and console her.
A reluctant Ram agrees, and goes to meet Sushma, only to be horrified by what he finds. Sushma is an embittered, nasty woman who guards her son’s inheritance so fiercely that she is ruthless with peasants who have not paid their taxes, or not paid back loans they’ve taken from her. She is the quintessential cruel zamindar: avaricious, merciless, and cold.
Ram is yet to see all these unpleasant facets of Sushma’s personality, but he’s heard enough from the villagers, and when he finally meets her—outside the local temple—he confronts her, asking her why she’s so harsh, so completely lacking in humanity. What ensues is a dialogue that provides a window into Sushma’s life:
Ram: “Bhagwaan ke charnon se tumhe yehi mila hai kya, Sushma?” (“Is this what you’ve received from God, Sushma?”)
Sushma: “Bilkul yehi mila hai. Zulm, musibat, dukh. Aur wohi main sab logon ko baant rahi hoon.” (“Yes, this is precisely what I’ve received. Torment, trouble, sorrow. And this is what I’m distributing to others.”)
Not long after, Ram gets to see for himself the evidence of Sushma’s heartlessness. A poor villager, Manglu, had taken a loan from Sushma, and has been neither able to pay it back, nor give her any interest, nor even pay his taxes. Sushma peremptorily orders her men to sell off everything that Manglu owns, and to bring her the proceeds. When even that is not enough to pay off Manglu’s debt to her, she orders that Manglu’s young daughter Sundariya be brought home to Sushma, to work in the house as a maid.
A crying Sundariya is being dragged away by Sushma’s men when Ram sees her. Concerned, he hears her account of what had happened. While Sundariya is taken away to Sushma’s, Ram hurries to Manglu’s hut, to find the man—a widower, and now without even his daughter—tied to one of the posts. Ram unties him, and hears more about how this state of affairs has come about.
By now, Ram has realized that things in Kundan Garh are really bad: Sushma and Madho, the two zamindars, have between them made life miserable for the villagers. To hand over his land to Madho and go away will be a betrayal of the trust of people like Manglu.
The next day, therefore, when Ram sits down with Madho to have a last look at the documents before he signs, he’s already in two minds. To sign or not to sign? Bhabhi and Sushma are both standing hidden behind the curtain of the door, waiting with bated breath to see what Ram’s decision will be.
Ram picks up the pen, reaches out to sign—then hesitates. Sushma and Bhabhi pray, hoping against hope that Ram will see sense and not sign [Yes, that does sound a little odd in Sushma’s case, since she obviously seems to be getting along fine without Ram in Kundan Garh—but wait and see]. Eventually, with the suspense building, Ram does put pen to paper—just as Manglu’s daughter Sundariya (who, of course, is now Sushma’s maid) comes up behind Sushma.
Sushma immediately turns and begins thrashing the girl and yelling at her, raising such a pandemonium that Ram is stalled. In that moment—of seeing Sushma beating a poor and defenceless girl—he also sees once again the sickening face of the tyranny of the rich. In disgust, Ram flings the pen away, and its sharp nib hits Sushma in the forehead, leaving her with a wound that will not go…
Ram settles down in Kundan Garh, opening a small hospital (he’s a qualified doctor, it turns out) and a school. Not only does he teach the children of the village, he also teaches adults like Manglu—which worries Madho, who is canny enough to realize that educated peasants will be peasants who will stand up for themselves and will not let themselves be tyrannized.
On the one hand, there is Ram’s concern for the villagers and his distaste of what the zamindars of Kundan Garh are doing. This—his socialism—ties him to Kundan Garh. On the other hand, there is his still-extant love for Sushma. Despite his disapproval (even his disgust) for the way she behaves, his love for her will not die. And he knows all too well that nothing will ever come of it, because Kundan Garh is not the place where widow remarriage will be smiled upon. It will be best, eventually, for Ram and Sushma to go their separate ways.
But will they? Will Ram’s socialism win and make him stay on permanently? Or will he let his hopeless love triumph and make him flee?
What I liked about this film:
The music, by Shankar-Jaikishan. My two favourite songs from the film are the lovely Kaare badraa tu na jaa na jaa, bairi tu bides na jaa, and the bhajan Hum kathputle kaath ke.
Nalini Jaywant as Sushma. Her acting is superb, of course, but I also find myself fascinated by the characterization of Sushma. This is an illiterate village woman (even though she is wealthy), but she is not your quintessential Hindi film heroine. She is not self-sacrificing and sweet through most of the film. She is harsh, selfish, even cruel.
She does not bear up well under pressure (that dialogue I’d quoted earlier is a good example of how adversity has worked on Sushma; instead of making her noble and good, it has been—oh, so much more realistic—an experience that has embittered her).
And, there is her love for Ram, which is unusually multifaceted. On the one hand, she knows him well enough to know how he feels, what he likes and does not like. For example, she knows that if Ram becomes aware of the plight of the villagers, his own conscience will make him stay on in Kundan Garh.
That is what reveals the other, rather more disturbing aspect of Sushma’s love for Ram: this is a selfish love. Sushma wants only that Ram should stay on in the village, even if she can never be his. Just the very idea that she will occasionally be able to see him or talk to him is enough incentive for her to employ whatever means she can to entice him to stay—and those means are not the coquettishness or seduction that another filmi heroine might have used. No; Sushma’s way is to thrash Sundariya, or have Manglu tied up, or to perpetrate other atrocities on the villagers.
And what eventually will she get out of making Ram live on in Kundan Garh? More pain, more heartbreak. Just as she keeps refreshing that wound on her forehead (a symbol of the sindoor in her maang, the sign of a marriage that can never take place?), Sushma keeps digging at the wounds in her past, intent on causing pain to herself.
Not the model Hindi film heroine. Not even a very likeable heroine. Not even, really, much of a heroine. But an intriguing and very unusual character. She is enough reason in herself to watch this otherwise tragic film.
What I didn’t like:
The pace of the film flags every now and then, with scenes that just seem to be there to fill space between songs. I don’t mind long dialogues, but too much of Shikast goes by in repetitive encounters between Sushma and Ram, where nothing much happens beyond what has already happened: Sushma deliberately trying to provoke him, Ram getting provoked—and still continuing, grudgingly, to love her.
Ultimately, for me, this film worked in the sense that it showed good characterization (Sushma’s) and excellent acting (Nalini Jaywant and Dilip Kumar). Where it lacked was in the draggy screenplay, and in the way some things (what tyranny had Sushma have to bear that made her so bitter?) are never explained.
Shikast is available on Youtube, here. Beware; this is a ruthlessly edited print, with bits of scenes chopped off here and there.